Review of The Lemonheads/Ben Kweller
by Thomas Conner
From Chicago Sun Times, 17th September 2006
"Since 15 I have run everywhere you can run," Ben Kweller sings in "Run," the lead-off track to his latest, self-titled solo outing. He started running when he was 12, really, forming the band Radish that wound up controversially signed to a major label when Kweller hit 15. A decade on, if the E! network docu-dramas and "Behind the Music" templates are to hold up, a childhood success like Kweller should be burned out, broke and robbing gas stations by now. But the beauty of this delicate alt-rocker is how easily he defies such expectations by producing great albums, each more thoughtful and well-written than the last. The line quoted above could have been sung as a jaded "the music industry's been so hard on me" lament, but for Kweller it's just a small autobiographical note in a sweet plea for the object of his desire to run away with him. He's got skills, see, and chicks dig guys with skills ...
Writing more and more at the piano, Kweller's songs often are downright jaunty, a feeling that underpins their astonishingly innocent and sometimes child-like, not childish, nature (witness "Penny on the Train Track" -- indie-rock Nilsson?!). "I Don't Know Why" is a hooky, jangly hit, the kind Matthew Sweet might have made back before he became so cynical. It's beatiful balladry and rollicking rock (softer here than usual, but still with teeth, especially on the second half) produced by Gil Norton.
Five years ago, I saw Kweller open for Evan Dando, and the spry youngster blew the befuddled old man off the stage. Dando tried to control the situation by inviting Kweller to join him, playing the godfather, and it only made the differences starker, sadder. These two self-titled discs (Kweller out Tuesday, Lemonheads out Sept. 26) have the same effect on each other.
The return of the Lemonheads is a noisy hangover, a modest embarrassment for those of us who once hailed Dando as our slacker king. Once dubbed by critic Ira Robbins as the "Peter Tork for Generation Slack," Dando led a consistantly revolving lineup as the Lemonheads; this one brings back bassist Karl Alvarez and drummer Bill Stevenson for a shoegaze-by-numbers set of power-pop chords and sheepish whining. "Become the Enemy" (written by Stevenson) is a great single that no doubt justified the production expenses for the record label, but it feels as if Dando has become the enemy, wringing the same tired moods out of grungy guitar scraping (Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis even joins on two songs). It sounds like a cover band at a college reunion -- nice to see the familiar faces but, hoo-boy, you ready to go, honey?